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Ahmad and the Theatre: Life in the Refugee Squats of Athens

by Federico Annibale

Where governments and NGOs have failed to adequately provide for migrants arriving on the shores of Greece, squats have cropped up as alternatives to the often squalid and restrictive conditions of refugee camps. Though far from perfect, these squats provide spaces of survival and spaces of hope. 

Seated on a mattress, Ahmad puffs away incessantly on his shisha. We are sitting in a room of the Jasmine School, one of the growing number of autonomous housing collectives for migrants in Athens, where around 350 people currently live. While sipping extremely sweet chai, we talk about Ahmad’s passion for theatre and cinema as a form of art. Back in his home country of Syria, the 33 year old used to act and direct both on stage and screen. “I attended a drama school … then at 23, I started to work in movies and performing in small theatres. I was happy, my life was good.” Then for Ahmad, like many others, the reality of war intruded into his life. Ahmad was forced to join the Syrian army, where he served the dictator Bashar al-Assad for almost 2 years.

At the end of his military service he headed back home, only to be captured by Al-Nusra fighters. “They kept me in prison for a month since I didn’t want to join them.” Only after paying €700 was Ahmad released. “After this I just escaped from Syria and went to Turkey.”

Ahmad arrived in Turkey after the 20th of March, 2016, the day on which the EU-Turkey agreement was signed. This agreement required Turkey to stop boats crossing the Aegean, causing the number of migrants arriving in Greece to decline considerably. On four separate occasions, Ahmad made it as far as the ocean, on a dinghy with 50-60 others, only to be captured by the Turkish police. Only on the fifth attempt, in June, did he arrive on Lesbos Island. However, once there, he found himself trapped in Moria camp, little more than a fully-fledged detention centre. “It was worse than a prison, it was like hell: we couldn’t get out. Every day, [we had] only macaroni and potatoes to eat, filthy toilets, riots. It was just horrible. And the police treated us very badly.”

In the miserable and humiliating life of Moria he began to write a play. “I finished writing it in 20 days, but the authorities of the camp didn’t allow me to put together a team of actors and perform it.” At the beginning of July, Ahmad was issued with a document entitling him to travel legally to Athens. After spending his first night in the capital sleeping rough, he managed to find shelter at the Jasmine School, where he has been living since.  “Listen, squats are not paradises on earth, not at all. Look how we live. But they are ours, at least the Jasmine school… We decide how to organise our spaces. For instance, I, Ahmad, wrote a play. I find the actors, arrange rehearsals, and then I put the play on stage. I don’t ask permission to anyone, you understand? In this sense squats are better than the official camps … We are freer.”

Indeed, the so-called ‘refugee’ squats in Athens are completely different from the official camps. In the occupied buildings, with the help of activists, solidarity groups, and sometimes NGOs, migrants organise their space, sorting out donated food, clothes, medical equipment and so on. Cooking, clothing distribution, cleaning of the communal areas and security is coordinated by the residents themselves, supported by activists.

In these spaces, the migrant is not regarded simply as a poor, weak person, as someone to help. They are recognised as a human being, a friend, and, fundamentally, an individual who can organise their own space. Here, NGOs and humanitarian organisations cannot impose their well-intended yet patronizing structures. Instead, migrants lead the way, working side-by-side with these volunteers.

A squat is a place of dignity, where migrants have full capacity for political agency, in which they express their creativity, learn languages, cook their own food. Back in the official camps, migrants are confined within a space where they are deprived of their subjectivities, and laid bare to the will of a state, which desires not only to exclude them, but to erase them completely.

As soon as Ahmad arrived at the Jasmine School, he found a group of residents in the squat who wanted to perform in the play. They began rehearsals twice a week and after two months, they were ready to perform. The play, titled ‘Migrants’, depicts the odyssey that a migrant is forced to undertake in order to reach Europe. Ahmad strongly believes that cinema and theatre are powerful means to bring people face-to-face with reality, no matter how bad or cruel it is. “With this play, I wanted to send four basic messages. The first one is about Islam and why it is not a terrorist religion, as Western media tend to portray, and that not all Syrian migrants who come to Europe are religious fundamentalists, or stuff like this: for example, I’m an atheist myself. Then, in the play, I deliberately reject the term ‘refugee’ because it is humiliating, it does not represent us in anyway and it does not mean anything at all; plus, I personally believe there shouldn’t be any borders, and people should be free to go wherever they want. This separation between refugees and economic migrants is neither natural nor human. The third message is showing the absurd life that we are living stranded here in Greece: we sleep and eat, that’s it. But we are normal people, exactly like the Europeans, we work and bust our hump, we only need dignity and documents. Lastly I wanted to show how terrible and heinous the police treatment of migrants is.”

On first meeting, Ahmad strikes a peculiar figure. One of those people you spot from afar, clearly involved in the arts. He has a wavy, frayed beard. A mop of long hair grows from the top of his head – but the sides of his head are shaved clean. He has a rough, eccentric face. A face that remains imprinted on your memory.

In Athens, there are around eight migrant squats, which accommodate more than 2500 people. But they aren’t all alike. For instance, a glance at the Notara26 pamphlet reveals that: “This project migrant squat] project doesn’t stand for philanthropy, state or private; but rather for a self-organized solidarity project, wherein locals and refugees/migrants decide together. The decision-making body is the squat’s open assembly, in which everyone is welcome to participate with no exclusions”.

As this statement makes clear, Notara26, in Exarchia, is a political space, which carries out solidarity work collectively with migrants and refugees. Activists from Notara26 are mainly anarchists, who share a politics that articulates a rejection of national borders as violent, coercive institutions. In this case, solidarity is deeply and profoundly linked with politics: they are part of the same overarching enterprise. One of the aims of this squat is to try to expand and create new solidarity projects and self-organised projects in Greece and beyond, with the idea of forming a strong transnational network, in line with their ‘no borders’ politics. The squat is operates according to horizontalist principles of organisation: there are no leaders, and the only body that takes decisions is an ‘open assembly’ of organisers, activists and residents. On top of this, Notara refuses any collaboration with NGOs or charity organizations, differentiating themselves from people whose help is driven only by humanitarian or philanthropic motives.

On the other side of the spectrum, other squats are less political (in so far as we can can consider any squatter project in an occupied building to be non-political). These spaces are not formed around a particular explicit political cause, but rather around the practical necessities of surviving as a migrant. And this is the case for Hotel Oniro – a squatted hotel close to Notara26 in the Exarchia neighbourhood – and the Jamsine School. Here, decisions are taken by a small group of residents, and where political views and rules tend to be marginalised or at least considered of secondary importance. 

Afaf is a Syrian woman who lives in the Fifth School, the first building to be squatted by migrants in Athens. She is working there as a translator and pharmacist. “The squats are amazing places, because they allow people to avoid sleeping in the streets, but they are not a long-term solution. We cannot put humans in these occupied buildings for years, OK? Their problems must be solved, which means understanding why they are on the streets, why they are living in occupied buildings. And the only answer is a political one, not humanitarian: they closed the borders,” Afaf argues. But in without such a political project on the horizon, Afaf has rolled up her sleeves – making sure that, in the meanwhile, people can get by. She is in the organization team of the Fifth School, and explained how donations and deliveries to the squats work. “There are many independent volunteers who just come and give us what we need. There is no source of money, and no huge NGOs. With these donations we keep the squats alive.”  Indeed, all the squats tend to be independent from – and indeed skeptical towards – big NGOs. Even if not all the squats have a functioning, horizontal open assembly, as in Notara 26, they all control their spaces, and try to resist external entities overcoming their spaces. 

Such efforts aren’t always successful. At 4am on the morning of the 13th of March 2017, 127 refugees were evicted from a disused occupied hospital near Omonia square, in central Athens. The building is owned by Hellenic Red Cross. They had been living there since mid-February. They were detained for several hours in a police station. The undocumented among them have been trasferred to a different centre to be registers, but  the documented were released without offering any alternative accommodation. They joined once again the swathes of migrants in Athens with no support and no place to go.

Ayman is a 37-year-old Palestinian who was used to be the coordinator of the Hotel Oniro squat, and is now in Germany, finally reunited with his family. He was one of those people who originally occupied Hotel Oniro. “We occupied that building because many of us were living in the camp at Piraeus port, which was about to be evicted by the police,” explains Ayman. “Someone told us about the occupations in Athens, so we went there and we met activists who were carrying out these actions. At the beginning, I was a bit scared. I didn’t know what a squat was, and I told them to explain it to me, since I was completely unaware. Then, they convinced us, if only because we didn’t have any alternatives. Around the 20th of June (2016) me and other few people from Piraeus camp went to the Hotel Oniro. Someone had already squatted it, probably anarchists. So, we went inside and it was very dirty, with no electricity and no water at all: it was like a ghost house. Hence, we organized ourselves and we worked hard for four days. Afterwards, we finally brought families with children to the hotel from the port.” In Hotel Oniro, too, food and goods are brought in only by independent volunteers or group of individuals.

Ahmad and I leave the school to grab a beer outside. Many of the Syrians living at the Jasmine School drink, but not inside the squat, within the ‘ummah’ (community): everyone knows it happens, but it is better if not everyone sees it. “The weather in Athens reminds me the weather in Syria – here it’s always sunny, like in our home country.” Since he arrived in Greece after the 20th March, Ahmad cannot apply for the Relocation Program – a European process put in place to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece, which so far has only succeeded in resettling 5% of the intended beneficiaries. Instead, he must apply for asylum in Greece, and even this exposes him to the threat of deportation back to Turkey.

We get two beers and hang out in the nearby Exarchia Square, the heart of the most politicised neighbourhood in Athens, to talk about his future projects. Besides performing and directing for theatre, he is now working on a mini-series about life inside the squatted school, for which filming will start soon. “I want to reveal how life is in the squats when they shut the borders and thousands of us have been kept in Greece; but I want to make it, since I’m part of this community. I don’t like it when white Europeans arrive here, stay here only for a few days, do their business and then leave.”

The core message of the mini-series is uncovering the difference between Europeans, who live serenely in their own homes, and ‘refugees’, who live in the squats. Nonetheless, Ahmad is aware that squats are better places compare to the official camps, and intends to portray this in the series. Having said this, there are negative aspects to life in the squat. “Some of us are like parasites, becoming excessively attached to other Syrians. Then others, who collaborate with independent volunteers or NGOs take advantage… stealing money and stuff like this. Listen, I think that only by representing the whole picture can we give a fair narration of it; if not we would over-romanticize it and distort it. I want to show the reality.”

We finish the beers and make our journey back to the school. In the courtyard children are playing with Spanish volunteers, their shouts echoing in the windows of what used to be a classroom, and now serves as a bedroom. The Iraqi chef scolds some kids for being too close to the kitchen, set in a lodge in the courtyard. Life in the squats is repetitive, monotonous; every day looks a lot like the day before. However, people waiting in limbo for relocation, have created a place to call their own. They have ownership of the space, and no external authority controls them. This is place where Ahmad was able to carry on with the business of living, rekindling his job and his passion. He has created a space in which he can express his creativity and denounce the conditions in which his brothers and sisters are currently living. In the face of such harsh conditions, this is no mean feat. 

Published 19th March 2017

This work by Novara Media is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence

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